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Children’s Wisconsin Emergency Department addressing food insecurity for families

“When a family is going through that, children carry so much of that stress too"
children's wisconsin
Posted at 6:41 PM, Oct 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-13 22:35:46-04

MILWAUKEE — If you go to the Emergency Room, you expect to be treated for an injury or illness. But what if your doctor asked you a few questions that went beyond the norm, and got to something essential in life?

It’s happening at Children’s Wisconsin, which created a program designed to help people with one of their most basic needs.

All children and families who come into the Emergency Department there, now get screened for food insecurity.

“I've had families cry because someone actually asked them about something beyond what their visit was for, and what their injury was,” said Dr. Michael Levas, an emergency physician in the ER at Children’s Wisconsin.

A hospital study found about half of all children/families coming into the ER at Children’s Wisconsin reported food insecurities – not having enough food to meet basic nutritional needs.

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“When a family is going through that, children carry so much of that stress too,” Dr. Levas said.

Working to change that started with free hospital cafeteria food vouchers for patients, and boxed meals when the cafeteria was closed. But it has evolved into complete wrap-around care through the Children’s Wisconsin Daniel M. Soref Family Resource Center.

After a patient or parent in the ER indicates a struggle to afford or provide enough food at home, that family will get a call from the resource center within a few days of their ER visit.

“As opposed to just giving them a list of local places to call, and suggestions of things to do upon leaving, our team actually calls them and walks them through potential assistance from the hospital, and local organizations in our community that would best serve them,” said Maggie Butterfield, the Executive Director of Patient Amenities and Family Services. “We’re attacking the problem on a bigger scale.”

The follow-up calls get the family directly connected to help they need for food, housing, employment, transportation, mental health, or any other special needs.

“We're doing so much cross sector learning between organizations like food pantries and health care systems,” said Jacqueline Whelan, a nurse and manager of Health Management Operations at Children’s Wisconsin. “I think it really is a demonstration of where Children’s is headed in taking a broader look at health equity.”

In just the first month of hunger screening in the ER and associated follow-up care, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin reports helping 100 new families referred by Children’s Wisconsin.

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“Being a woman of color specifically in a black community, we know there is a lot of racial disparities as it relates to health,” said Martha Collins, the Director of Advocacy and Outreach at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. “Not having access to food, especially healthy food, is a primary reason for the problems so many families in underserved areas are experiencing.”

Collins said this kind of partnership is the key to making sure all kids and families in our area have the best chance at a healthy life.

Similarly, the team at Children’s Wisconsin believes treating the underlying social and economic factors that impact health really is the future of hospital care.

According to Feeding America, more than 20 percent of children in Wisconsin experience food insecurity, which is much more common among households that have poor or low income, are headed by a single parent, have lower education levels, or are predominantly Black and Hispanic.

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